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Outcome Focused Faith
Aleve or PT?
I recently completed a five-session physical therapy course for a painful lower back. At the start I was asked to complete a questionnaire assessing the level of pain and dysfunction while sleeping, walking, driving, etc. Then as part of my exit protocol I filled out the same survey. The expectation, of course, was that my answers would indicate significant improvement. They did. My physical therapist smiled, gave me a parting gift, and turned to other patients satisfied that his treatment had secured the desired outcome.
What my good therapist didn't know is that about the same time I began his treatment I switched from taking six Tylenol a day to two Aleve. This, after consulting my primary care physician. Aleve is an anti-inflammatory which seemed to bring almost immediate relief. Or was it the therapy? Who knows? Who cares? I feel better.
This incident illustrates the problem with evaluating any action based on perceived outcomes. Human beings do not know enough to accurately evaluate the cause of any particular outcome. In this case I withheld information. My physical therapist's satisfaction rested upon incomplete data. The problem was not in the commendable protocal of before and after evaluations. Rather, in the assumption that he knew all there was to know about the situation.
When our faith focuses on outcomes
The very popular mantra goes, "If you have enough faith, life gets better." This is the core message of the Joel Osteens of the world: "Have faith, will prosper." The following is quoted directly from Osteen's website.
"I’m so thankful that Daddy didn’t listen to all the naysayers. He believed that God had more in store for him than staying home and picking cotton. And because he stayed focused on his dream and was willing to step out in faith, he broke that curse of poverty. Now, my siblings and I, and our children, grandchildren, even our great-grandchildren, are all going to experience more of the goodness of God.
Let me challenge you to believe for more. Don’t travel the road for the next 50 years and be at the same place you’re at today."
There it is, "believe for more." Believe to achieve certain outcomes. The obvious implication is that if certain outcomes don't materialize you are at fault for not believing strongly enough. Such Christianity is nothing more than pep-rally after pep-rally designed to gin up the kind of faith that brings about the desired outcomes. It's another gospel. Paul had some choice words for those who distort the good news of grace.
"If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, rlet him be accursed." Galatians 1:9
Enter Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego
Daniel reports an incident that took place at the time of Nebuchanezzar, King of Babylon around 450 years before Christ. At the urging of wicked men who hated Daniel and his three friends, the king had a golden image set up with the command that when instruments sounded all were to bow down before it. Of course the three Jews refused. We don't know where Daniel was at this time. Perhaps out of the country. So the three were accused of disloyalty and threatened with incineration. Here's their response.
“O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16-18)
The three would do the right thing regardless of outcome. In this particular case God delivered his servants from the fire. When thrown into the furnace they were joined by God himself, the fourth person spotted by Nebuchadnezzar as he peered into the fire. But God doesn't always reward faith with positive outcomes.
"And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon,Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth." Hebrews 11:32-38
The victors and the tortured, both had real faith. Needless to say, the outcome of their faith was different.
Then there's Habakkuk
Habakkuk was very troubled by the corruption and greed and violence he saw around him. So he cries out for God's intervention. His expectation is that God, who is utterly holy, would immediately bring about a change for the better. Why wouldn't He?
Well, God would indeed bring about change, but not in the way Habakkuk expected. In fact conditions would worsen before they got better. I covered this in a previous hub titled, God's Idle Look
To the present point, like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, Habakkuk came to the point of declaring:
Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation." Habakkuk 3:16-18
Whatever the outcome, Habakkuk's faith would remain focused on God his salvation.
Believe and you shall be saved?
Don't the Scriptures themselves encourage outcome focused faith? Yes there are texts that seem to encourage us to believe in order to get certain results. Acts 16:31, quoted above, has Paul assuring the Philippian jailer that if he believes he will be saved.
I Corinthians 10:13 reads, "God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it."
Yes there are hundreds of assurances in Scripture which we are to believe with the expectation that God will honor his word and provide what He's promised. But here is what few seem to notice. God's assurances are of a general nature. They are not mathematically precise. Indeed God saves. But there's the salvation given the three in Nebuchadnezzar's furnace and there is the salvation given to all who die trusting in Jesus Christ. Which is it?
Yes, God won't let you be tempted "beyond your ability." But who gets to decide the limits of your ability? And what might the "way of escape" look like?
And how does one know whether it was his faith that brought about the good or was it something else... someone else's prayers. Or maybe it would have happened apart from faith altogether. Jesus performed a number of healing miracles where no faith is observed.
The reason God's promises are general is that He reserves to himself the right to determine the most loving and just way to reward faith. He may choose to disappoint a faith that asks for $1500 to pay a mortgage in order to adjust a cocky attitude and ultimately prepare you for something far better.
He may choose to deny you physical healing in order to show you his power in your weakness. When Paul learned that lesson he exclaimed, "Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me." II Corinthians 12:9 It looks like Paul would rather have what he called "a thorn in his flesh" than miss out on discovering God's power.
If not outcome focused faith, what
God focused faith. This kind of faith grasps and holds on to God himself as the only focus of faith. In fact, faith is strong or weak to the degree that it is riveted on God himself, not the good things we'd like to get from Him.
The basis for God focused faith is God's covenant promise.
"I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people." Leviticus 26:11,12
This promise is repeated over and over again in Scripture. Jesus confirmed it when he assured his disciples, "I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:20
This is the one promise which applies universally in any and every situation. God has created us for friendship with himself. Our enjoyment of every other blessing whether temporal or eternal, earthly or heavenly, physical or spiritual, hinges on our friendship with God. Moses got it. When God offered him the promised land but said He wouldn't go with him, Moses refused. (Exodus 33)
Scotty Smith got it right in a recent prayer.
"Jesus, for those of us who don’t feel crushed in spirit, but rather disoriented and discombobulated in spirit; help us to sort through the issues. Show us what is repent-able and what is repairable; and quiet our noisy hearts with your grace, so we can hear you speak. Help us realize we need your presence much, much more than we need circumstances and people to change."
How would you describe your faith?
The true outcome of outcome focused faith
I'm persuaded that the prevalence of outcome focused faith in America is at the root of Christianity's loss of power and influence. Folks are being persuaded to follow Jesus with glossy displays of the Faith's features and benefits. Most see through the sham. Those who don't are soon discouraged by the lack of results. They either turn away from Christ altogether or settle into doing church without any real change in daily living.